Community engagement is a concept that is increasingly emerging in carbon removal conversations, highlighted by groups ranging from The National Academies to funders and investors, NGOs, and start-ups. Despite this growing attention, approaches to implementing community engagement thus far in the carbon removal space seem often to be missing the mark.
Here, I share some reflections on ways that community engagement in carbon removal can be improved. These draw upon my involvement in academic feasibility studies on carbon removal with robust social science components (namely, OceanNETs and Solid Carbon), including interviewing carbon removal researchers and start-ups, and my involvement as a governance reviewer for Frontier, as well as on a range of social science scholarship on ‘engagement’.
Defining community engagement
‘Community engagement’ can be understood to mean many different things. Here, I take it to mean processes by which different groups are involved in making decisions that affect them. An important distinction is between this kind of engagement, which centers on informing decision-making, and other types of engagement that serve as education or communication tools.
Why does community engagement matter?
Using engagement to improve decision-making is essential to deploying carbon removal in ethical and just ways: it is critical that the people that will be affected by carbon removal participate in decision-making about carbon removal projects. Community engagement is also critical to simply making deployment more effective: many new technologies and development or infrastructure projects have been shut down due to social backlash by communities and public groups. For a project to be viable, local groups need to approve and be on board with it, what is sometimes called a ‘social license to operate’.
If carbon removal is to get to the scales needed, it is thus essential that community engagement is done, and done well.
Some initial recommendations on improving community engagement:
- What engagement is not: getting ‘buy-in’. It is first critical that the carbon removal community distinguishes engagement from activities like public relations or marketing, or other efforts that seek to get ‘buy-in’ on a project. Engagement must not be an exercise in persuasion—it needs to communicate concepts and plans in ways that allow affected groups to fully evaluate what is being proposed in as unbiased a way as possible.
- Acknowledge that the ‘community’ is broader than you might think. Another challenge for carbon removal researchers, developers, and policymakers will be figuring out who, exactly, is an affected group. At first glance it may seem, for instance, that offshore environments do not have inhabitants, and, thus, there is no need for engagement for some marine carbon dioxide removal projects. But social scientists have shown that people rely on and have important relationships with marine spaces. This is particularly important to acknowledge and attend to with Indigenous groups, who have rights to marine spaces, whether national governments acknowledge those or not.
- Proactively engage a diversity of groups. Engagement efforts on carbon removal need to convene the full range of potentially affected groups. One aspect of this is making engagement activities more accessible (e.g., via the choice of location, event time, compensation, provision of childcare, etc.). But engagement also needs to proactively seek out this range of people, rather than only speaking with the groups that are most readily available to participate in conversations.
- Be wary of ‘naturalistic’ framings. Extensive social science literature has shown that people tend to prefer what is ‘natural’. A challenge for engagement will be how to explain complex, unintuitive concepts like ocean alkalinity enhancement, without defaulting to naturalistic framings that, in many cases, may misrepresent the industrial, large-scale nature of what is being proposed.
- Talk about the full supply chain. It might seem like engagement only needs to focus on activities occurring directly at or immediately adjacent to a proposed project site, but people are likely to care a lot about other things like how material inputs are produced and what happens to waste. These aspects of the supply chain need to be part of engagement efforts.
- Be transparent about the full scale of potential implementation. While it may be tempting to only engage people on their views regarding small-scale activities like initial field trials, engagement activities should explain to participants what proposed activities would look like at larger scales of deployment.
- Bring in political economic considerations. Another important point is focusing engagement beyond just questions of ecological impacts. Attention needs to be given to questions like, will a project perpetuate ongoing emissions, i.e., will it pose a “moral hazard? Who is funding, owning, and controlling these projects, or to be blunt, who is making money off them? These are questions that communities will very likely care about.
- Make engagement ‘two-way’. Engagement does not just end with a single workshop or activity. It needs to be ongoing and iterative, but also, there need to be processes and structures for modifying or even canceling plans according to findings from engagement work. Projects need to provide clear and transparent pathways for community insight and input to shape any project under consideration; it is very possible that engagement efforts will discover that a given community objects to a project in its current configuration, and projects need to acknowledge these as a possible outcome and be transparent about how it will reconfigure its work.
- The outcome of engagement might be ‘no’. A very real possibility is that engagement will reveal an outright rejection of or opposition to activities in a given area. In this case, it is critical that this ‘no’ is taken seriously and results in a cessation of future efforts in this location.
From reactive to proactive engagement
Currently, engagement efforts on carbon removal tend to be small-scale in nature and somewhat reactive—a start-up wants to operate in X or Y locations, so it conducts several engagement activities in limited geographic areas regarding the specific technological approach that it hopes to implement. For a more just and responsible implementation of carbon removal, however, the carbon removal sector will need to do proactive engagement. This would mean cultivating a much broader base of understanding of how communities view carbon removal, rather than limited explorations of how specific communities view specific activities. This broader base of understanding would be open-ended: it should be explored in advance of specific, project-based engagement efforts and it should explore views across a range of technological and political economic options. Crucially, engagement should also be convened and led by groups that are not employed by project proponents. Following tenets of co-design, such a ‘proactive’ approach to engagement should also place local communities at the forefront of carbon removal decision-making processes.
Prioritizing such engagement of the public and local communities will be essential to both the just and robust implementation of carbon removal in the coming years. It may seem early, but it is essential that these engagement processes begin now.
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